Book World Gets Together

Annual Frankfurt fair offers spot for deals

THE 47th annual Frankfurt Book Fair opens today amid signs that traditional publishers, the black-type-on-white-paper crowd, have made peace with the CD-ROM.

''New Pages, New Ages,'' the poster for this year's fair boldly proclaims.

But books are still the main event, and the fair retains its importance as the primary market for ''wheeling and dealing'' in international and subsidiary publishing rights.

''Connections are the important thing in Frankfurt,'' says fair director Peter Weidhaas. He estimates that 80 percent of publishing-rights transfers go through Frankfurt. Today's fair is a postwar institution. But its roots, including its international tradition, go back to the Middle Ages.

''Gutenberg sold his Bibles at the Frankfurt Book Fair,'' Mr. Weidhaas says. ''The cultural importance of the fair is that it is where books go from one culture to another, from one language to another, from one country to another.''

Book people come to Frankfurt to meet their counterparts from the world over - including those from their own hometowns. That art book on your coffee table, wherever you live, may have come to you via Frankfurt.

This year, ''the world's largest communications market,'' as its promoters describe it, will display 330,000 titles from nearly 9,000 exhibitors from 97 countries. The exhibition space is 1.4 million square feet - and a major expansion is planned for next year to accommodate pent-up demand. The fair has grown every year since 1954, although Weidhaas declines to put a money value on the total volume of business transacted, since publishers won't tell him, he says.

A separate hall houses just electronic publishing this year - CD-ROMs, interactive video, hand-held electronic books. And many publishers will be displaying their new media products alongside their traditional bound ones at their ''classic'' booths in the other halls.

Nervous essayists have been worrying aloud for days in the pages of the newspapers here whether the coming of ''new media'' signals the end of old, familiar ones, and particularly of the ''culture of reading.''

But Ferhan Cook, president of Media Play International in Paris, a consulting firm that looks to match software creators with publishers, says of electronic publishing, ''Everybody who understands what's going on is not afraid of it.'' Traditional and electronic books ''have a way of coexisting,'' she adds.

A preview of the fair confirms her point: Travel guides, dictionaries, encyclopedias, and other reference works are the focus of the electronic publishers. Some observers suggest that a natural division of labor may be developing, with traditional formats remaining the home of fiction and poetry.

Dr. Cook observes that the new media arms of traditional American publishers tend to be underrepresented here. ''A lot of Americans don't know Frankfurt,'' she says.

She expects Frankfurt to develop into the world's premier fair for CD-ROM and other new media markets.

Frances Smyth, editor in chief at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, typifies both the ''high tech'' and ''high touch'' sides of the fair. Interviewed as she was setting up in a tight little corner populated largely by fellow art publishers, she said that one of her priorities was finding a publisher to help turn her museum's new ''Micro Gallery'' multimedia system into a CD-ROM for home use.

She was also looking for publishing partners - co-publishers or distributors - for books growing out of different exhibitions the gallery puts on. It's important to get the right partner for each project, she noted, rattling off a number of publishers - mostly American - she does business with.

But why not meet with them at home instead of here?

''I find one of the great things about the fair is the competition,'' she said. At the fair, word gets out among her frequent partners that the National Gallery is doing this or that project, ''and it's like a slow-motion auction.''

The fair helps concentrate publishers' attention in a way that moves deals along. That is why the art book on your coffee table may have, metaphorically at least, traveled through Frankfurt. For all the huge numbers, vast hallways, and impressive electronic displays, the human contact is still all-important.

Notes Ms. Smyth: ''Publishing is a very personal business, a matter of taste.''

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